Opting out of testing

And I mean really opting out. Dean Donald Heller of Michigan State’s Education School explains why he let his younger daughter drop out of high school:

We knew she was not as engaged as well, and to understand why, we talked to her, spoke with her teachers and counselor, and examined the curriculum in her school. What we came to realize was that her high school did not meet her needs as a learner. While she was an interdisciplinary thinker and was intellectually curious about a number of different creative areas, her school was highly traditional in its structure and curriculum. We concluded it had largely a singular focus: to improve performance of students on the state tests rather than to encourage them to grow intellectually and to develop a breadth of learning. Our daughter was performing well on tests, but she understood that she was not reaching her full potential as a student.

Read the whole thing. The last paragraph, in particular, is rather touching.

Public schools are of remarkably uneven quality, and their goals are not always perfectly in sync with the goals of parents (or of students). The mania — and it’s a bona fide mania at this point, I think — for standardized testing as a way of determining school, class, teacher, and student quality is driving schools in particular directions that may or may not equate to “quality” in the eyes of all of the school’s potential clientele. It’s hard to please everyone.

One the one hand, your children are only young once, and they are largely your responsibility. If you can do better for your kids, you probably should. If your kids can do better for themselves, well, then they probably should, too.

But on the other, carrying that train of thought out to its logical conclusion suggests that the public school system is basically a remedial measure for parents without the desire and/or ability to do better for their kids, in terms of cognitive and social development. We might not be unjustified to start thinking of schools as a sort of “safety net” for parents and students.

But that’s a very different view of public education than is held by many — and probably most — people in this country. Public education is more often seen, I think, as a sort of public institution at large, and the primary way of producing an informed citizenry, with private schools and homeschooling and such serving as a sort of minor variation on the theme. Our public schools, we might think, are part of the fabric of our democracy.

Then the paradox: to serve the entire democracy, we must serve the disadvantaged. But serving the disadvantaged requires tremendous resources, and often involves the schools essentially replacing parents who are unable or unwilling to raise their students in a manner considered by the voting public to be “responsibly”. Yet more tightly schools focus their services on the most disadvantaged students, though, the more I think we can expect schools to bring upon themselves the mantle of being remedial institutions that “the right sort of people” want little or nothing to do with. And that will probably mean less public support for those schools as well.

It might be the case that public schools (and we, their supporters), to ensure their survival and their place in civic life, must accept that the best we can hope for is to marginally improve the lives of disadvantaged students, and that fixing them entirely is simply not a realistic undertaking.


  1. Elizabeth says:

    This makes no sense – every kid is unique – he should have provided additional enrichment for his daughter, found another school or homeschooled her. There is also Running Start. Something else is going on here.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Hmmm. Did we actually read the article?

      • Elizabeth says:

        Yes, I did – sending your kid 600 miles away is a really dubious choice. I find it hard to believe there were not other alternatives. Unless she were in danger or in an extremely toxic environment, they could have done her the service of teaching her discipline and perserverance.

        • Michael E. Lopez says:

          Well, you can criticize the distance, I suppose. But I don’t think you can fault Dean Heller for not “provid[ing] additional enrichment for his daughter.”

          As for the distance, once you’re living somewhere else, I don’t think it matters whether it’s 50 miles or 600. My friend whose daughter is going to college 50 miles away isn’t *really* going to see that much more of that daughter than he is of the one who is going to school 500 miles away.

          I can imagine that many parents find the notion of boarding school to be a per se bad one. That’s not a crazy position, though I happen to disagree with it.

  2. I think that the focus on the disadvantaged, and on the least able and motivated (those unlikely to pass any significant testing, regardless of funding) is eroding support for the public schools. Charter schools and homeschooling are increasingly popular, and I have the impression that the reasons for homeschooling have changed significantly over recent decades. Comments I read from homeschoolers often cite inappropriate inclusion of their spec ed kids (kids who can function in separate classes but not in regular ones) and failure to challenge bright and motivated kids. The other factor hurting the reputation of public schools is the failure to ensure either safely or appropriate school behavior; the behavioral standards in force when I was in school have been completely abandoned in many places. I think the latter is driving the popularity of charters, in urban areas. Of course, there are enclaves (often affluent, highly-educated suburbs) where these concerns are less significant, but they may represent a smaller and smaller part of the whole.

  3. I don’t have any kids, but if I did I would never allow them to attend the schools they would have to attend, given where our house is located. There are some amazingly good schools not too far away, but any kids I might have wouldn’t be able to attend them.

    Sadly, we would have to either move, private school or home school. I’m sure we would find a way, but I sure do wonder about all those kids in those demonstrably crappy schools.

  4. The assumption is that test-driven schools may not serve the well-off, but do serve the disadvantaged. I disagree. I wouldn’t want that kind of education for anyone.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      I don’t *think* I said anything about schools actually doing a good job of serving the disadvantaged. Just that that’s where they’re focusing all of their resources.

      To the extent that I made any claim about the quality of testing regimes that was stronger than that into a reasonable inference from my writing, I take it back.

      • I didn’t mean that you were taking that view, since if anything you seemed to think that testing has gone way over the top. But I can’t quite get how the testing mania leads to the characterization of schools as “remedial” or as a “safety net.” They’re just dishing out crappy education to everyone, needlessly. The only difference between the Hellers and many disadvantaged families is that the Hellers have the means to do something about it.

        In other words, I don’t really see how the Hellers’ story illustrates any kind of tension between serving the disadvantaged and serving the well-off. They didn’t leave the system because of any overemphasis on serving disadvantaged students.

        • They left because of full inclusion….art projects in lieu of compositions, no honors/ib/advanced classes, daily disruptions, etc. The only difference btwn them and my district is that the super here told the honors kids to dual enroll at a nearby college if they want advanced classes, or move.

      • Schools in the United States do not focus their resources on the disadvantaged. Unlike most other developed nations, public schools in the United States have always spent less money educating educating poor and working class children.

        Poor people are not irresponsible parents. Most poor people work hard in difficult jobs with low wages. The people who harvest our crops, clean our houses and businesses, and care for the sick and elderly are not irresponsible. Life itself would not be possible without the work they do. They deserve better. At the very least our public schools should commit to spending as much on the education of poor children as we do on upper class children.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          “Unlike most other developed nations, public schools in the United States have always spent less money educating educating poor and working class children”

          In New Jersey, where I live, we spend significantly more on poor children than we do on middle and affluent students who attend public schools. Google ‘Abbott school districts’ if you really care.

          • The Abbott school districts are an attempt to improve the funding of high poverty schools at the state level. They do not equalize the funding between high poverty schools and public schools in affluent areas because in New Jersey the primary source of school funding does not come from the state. In fact “state government pays just 34 percent of school costs in New Jersey — among the lowest levels in the nation.” http://blog.nj.com/njv_editorial_page/2012/01/nj_school_funding_reform_key_t.html
            Click on the link if you really care.

        • When is the last time you were in a public school?

          One can make the argument that some schools are funded better than others, but even this is much less of a problem since so much of the education funding is passed out by Washington D.C now. However within schools, the majority of effort, resources and funding goes to the disadvantaged and underperforming. Any honest administrator will admit it. My principal announces it as policy at the first staff meeting every year. Besides PC political considerations, the way schools are evaluated forces schools to do this. For instance, the reward you get for moving a student from below basic to basic, is nearly double what you recieve for moving a student from proficent to advanced.

          • Exactly.
            Do a little digging. How much is your district spending on summer school, tutoring, alternative and lawyers for truants? How much are they spending on honors/ap/ib? How much are parents spending on dual enrollment for nonrequired math courses post Algebra 2?

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          Ray, you are both right and wrong that, “Schools in the United States do not focus their resources on the disadvantaged.” Within the suburbs, rich areas spend more per pupil than poor areas. But per pupil expenditures in the central cities are generally higher, often much higher than in the ‘burbs.

          Of course, the effectiveness of that spending is another story.

          Lots of poor people are not irresponsible parents. Alas, many are. Often, that’s why they are parents in the first place. (Yeah, I’m a hardass about this. Anyone–rich or poor–who has unsafe sex is irresponsible. Anyone who gets someone pregnant, or gets pregnant, when they can’t afford to raise the kid is irresponsible.)

      • Maybe there are people who think that if the schools devoted fewer resources to the disadvantaged, then they could offer a more engaging form of education to kids like Heller’s daughter? Equity issues aside, that strikes me as very unrealistic. Proponents of test-driven education support it because they *believe* in it. I don’t see any reason to think that more resources would result in anything other than more of the same.

        • Michael E. Lopez says:

          It’s not *just* about resources in the financial sense. When I talked about focused resources, I meant to include labor, energy, and attention on the part of teachers and administrators. I meant to include classroom time as well, and maybe even what little time schools spend thinking about issues in educational philosophy.

          When you open the enrollment in, say, AP English, and as a result have to dumb the class down somewhat (harsh, uncomfortable language, I know), then what you’re doing is shifting classroom resources from the more able students to less able students. (Though not necessarily, in that scenario, to so-called “disadvantaged” students.)

          That’s a HUGE part of what I meant by “resources”. Money probably wouldn’t even account for a plurality of the sort of resources I’m talking about.

          • Okay, but again, it’s not my impression from the article that the Hellers were complaining about that kind of thing. My guess is that the AP course with restrictive entry standards would not have been any more engaging to their daughter than one with a more open enrollment. They would likely both have involved just as much teaching to the test and just as little focus on “encourag[ing them to grow intellectually and to develop a breadth of learning.” The problem is the educational philosophy of the “accountability” crowd, not any limitation on resources.

          • Michael E. Lopez says:

            Yes, Chris, but “teaching to the test” is a relatively new thing in honors level classes. And that shift in focus is a result of the shift of focus in schools’ institutional mission. The main thrust of No Child Left Behind (the legislation that really started this whole testing regime with which we now live under other names) was to ensure that schools were serving their disadvantaged students by getting them “up to speed”. That’s the core of the testing movement: getting *every* student to “proficiency”, no matter how far behind they might be.

          • I hear you, and I know that the accountability movement has been justified in part on those grounds, but I disagree that the justification is confined to those grounds. A belief in the centrality of measurement and accountability applies to all kids, not just struggling kids — that’s why it’s affected AP courses.

            Moreover, the whole premise that test-driven education is good for struggling or disadvantaged kids is faulty (as I think we both agree). So I’d hate to have the opposition to it set up as a conflict between what’s good for disadvantaged kids and what’s good for well-off kids. I think neither its supporters nor its opponents see it that way.

        • Stacy in NJ says:

          It really isn’t about resources or money. It’s more about structure, quality, choice, and accountability.

          My oldest son will be a senior in the fall. The most maddening aspect of public education for him is the bureaucracy of the institution and the various nonsense rules and requirements and the hypocrisy of the system or the adults within the system who make false claims. They treat 16-18 year olds like infants who must be locked down in a building for 6-7 hours per day with little freedom. They force them to jump through maddening hoops or take pointless classes to fill “requirements”. The experience of public education, particularly at the high school level, is significantly removed from real world experience. It isn’t surprising that students behave in ways similar to prison inmates when that’s how they’re treated. Also, it’s about the hypocrisy and false promises. Many schools offer courses called “physics” or “biology” but the content is a joke. The students are lead frequently unwillingly by the nose through water-downed material by instructors who need to pass a certain percentage of students regardless of student performance.

          The kids know it is a system that can be gamed. They know that a significant percentage of what they’re doing is pointless bullshit.

          The question is: why would a reasonably responsible, reasonably well adjusted kid want to attend a typical high school. Now some kids get enough positive from the environment via sports, activities, focused academics, and friendships to make the rest tolerable. But I find nothing suspect about a kid who is simply ready to move on to an environment that better meets their needs (as the author’s daughter has done).

          • My kids were fortunate enough to attend “high-performing” schools, in which their honors and APs were really operating at that level (in most cases, requiring the honors prior to the same-subject AP). However, the silly requirements, at both MS and HS levels, were really annoying. For several of them, the only (required) “practical arts” class that fit into their MS academic schedules was cooking; a class in which the teacher used only high-fat, high-salt, highly processed materials. My kids could all cook healthy meals from scratch, and wouldn’t eat any of the junk she taught, so the class was a total waste of their time. PE was another waste of time for four year-round elite athletes. In what universe does a swimmer who trains 5 hours a day need PE? (or worse, being expected to teach the swimming class, in street clothes, on the pool deck; not much exercise) Or a soccer player who plays on 5 teams? A study hall would make more sense.

            Public schools need to give up the one-size-fits-all approach and offer many different sizes and types of programs; academic, vocational and life skills for those kids who will never be able to pass any meaningful test. Even within families, different kids have different interests, different needs and different abilities. We’ve known many families who have one kid in a big school and one in a small one, one in a highly-structured one and one in a “loose” one etc.

  5. cranberry says:

    As we’ve opted to send children to boarding schools for high school, I understand his decision. If his daughter’s able to thrive in an early-college program, but does not find the local public high school intellectually engaging, then they made the right choice.

    There will still be tests, and academic work, but not NCLB tests. That’s not a loss, especially for a child who’s above average.

  6. In the U.S., we spend far more money on the bottom 50% of students in public schools, than on the top 5% of all students in public schools.

    Given the amounts of money thanks to Plyler vs Texas (1982) that have to be spent on educating everyone attending a public school (regardless of immigration status), and that the only groups always being mentioned in education reports as low achieving are latinos and african-americans (despite the fact that many school districts, including mine, which is the nation’s 5th largest) are all minority-majority districts, something doesn’t add up.

    I mean, in Washington, D.C., the district there spends 29 thousand per student, but 80% of them cannot read at grade level?

    Did anyone ever consider that some kids just don’t GET school, and perhaps never will? We don’t have compulsory education laws in the U.S. of A, but rather compulsory attendance (which is quite a different thing).


    • GoogleMaster says:

      You keep repeating this 50%/5% thing, but I would think something were really unbalanced if we didn’t spend more on any 50% of the population than we spend on any 5% of the population.

  7. Cranberry says:

    There’s an odd meme which seems to stem from the Thomas Fordham Foundation that standardized, yearly grade-level tests are necessary for all students; parents should see them as a civic duty. Yet if those tests are set at a level attainable for most students, some students will not need to learn much that year. We knew our children were working “above grade level.” We didn’t need the test to confirm that.

    I’m old enough to see numerous jokes, as in, “don’t be silly, no one would do that,” become standard practice, and then, in turn, become things one shouldn’t question. Such as using more advanced students as unpaid student tutors during class. Rather than learn something, they get to “work.” The class material may not be remedial–but it’s drudgery for them.

    This approach slows down the pace of instruction. It’s not unusual for students _entering_ private high schools to have covered algebra1, geometry, and sometimes trigonometry during middle school. And yet it seems Common Core places Algebra in high school.

    It would be wonderful if the public system would create more academies along the lines of Thomas Jefferson or Stuyvesant. I won’t hold my breath. In the meantime, parents bear the responsibility to their children to provide an education.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    In my kids’ HS, AP was strictly teaching to the test. The objective was to do well enough on the AP test for college admissions and for being allowed to skip intro classes.
    But, to take foreign language as an example, there was AP Spanish and Spanish Five. Different emphases. More on culture and lit in the second.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Of course, most all teaching is “to the test.” I don’t see much of a moral difference between tests made up by the instructor and tests made up by some outside institution.

      What seems important to me is 1) whether the test accurately assesses what is taught, and 2) whether what is taught is worth learning.

      Opposition to “testing” tends to mix those three together.

      • When I taught information security at the local community college some years ago, students who wanted the certification had to take and pass the exam, but I couldn’t (per a NDA) tell them exact test questions (plus they were in a pool of questions, etc).

        What I did teach them is a working knowledge of the material they would encounter on the exam (both book work and actual real world examples), and test taking tactics and how to prepare for these exams (which have to be re-taken every 2-3 years, btw).

        Teaching to the test rarely works, due to the fact that if the student doesn’t have a working knowledge of the material being tested on, it’s gonna be a bad result. Though it wouldn’t surprise me if AP exams are indeed taught this way, but perhaps this is why many colleges will only give credit for scores of 4/5 on AP exams these days (in a LOT of cases, a 3 won’t cut it in the next course the student has to take).

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        Roger. Our AP was not only teaching to the test, it was teaching to the colleges’ requirements for skipping intro classes, which is to say, money.
        Unless you specify that AP was covering the language in detail and depth as well as literature, which it may or may not have been, it was testing for money.
        Spanish Five was what a good education in Spanish would be, quoth my wife who taught both.

        • My older kids’ HS still offers both AP Spanish Language and AP Spanish Lit. The full sequence started with Spanish I and 2 in 7th-8th, honors 3-4 in freshman-sophomore, then the AP language and the AP lit. IIRC, the language covered what used to be the freshman grammar/comp (lit-based) and the lit covered Spanish Masterworks..